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How the CIA’s Top Disguise Expert Fooled the Secret Service and Shocked the President

At the height of the Cold War, Jonna Mendez was chief of the CIA’s disguise division – a branch of the agency charged with outfitting secret agents operating abroad.

By 1991, the department was developing remarkably life-like latex masks and Mendez was eager to deploy their sophisticated new spy technology where it was needed the most – Soviet Russia.

But first, Mendez needed to prove her deceits would work under the most perilous conditions.

So, she arranged the ultimate test.

Could she fool White House security and the President of the United States himself?

Excerpted from ‘In True Face: A Woman’s Life in the CIA, Unmasked’

In 1989, our fully animated ethnic- and gender-change mask was ready for the runway.

I changed into a man’s suit and donned the mask of a black male, adding matching skintight latex gloves that were precisely painted with the same skin color, including veins.

Exercises like this, if successful, provided proof of concept.

Could I convincingly change my gender? What about skin color? Could I change both at the same time?

I’d already disguised a Caucasian male field officer as an African student in a live operation, but this was new mask technology, and we were always testing new scenarios and pushing the proverbial envelope farther than we had previously.

Once I was in full disguise, I had someone accompany me to the office of Frank Anderson, our office director. I was introduced as a new contractor. Nodding, I walked to his desk but said nothing, aware that I didn’t sound like a man.

Extending my hand, I shook his, which I knew would be the moment of my reveal. As soon as he felt the latex on my right hand, I peeled off the mask with my left. His eyes lit up as I transformed back into myself.

He loved it and insisted we model it for the director of the CIA, Judge William Webster.

A week later, as we entered Webster’s suite of offices on the 7th floor of CIA headquarters, I was more than a little nervous.

Anderson had always been supportive of our disguise program, but I hadn’t yet met Judge Webster, a former director of the FBI.

A tall, broad-shouldered executive, Anderson walked in first, followed by a 5’7′ black man wearing a suit and tie.

‘Sir,’ Frank said, ‘I would like to introduce you to…’

His voice trailed off as, again wearing the latex gloves, I stretched out my hand.

As soon as I removed the full-face mask, Judge Webster’s face lit up like an enthusiastic little boy.

Astounded by the mask’s ability to change ethnicity and gender, he and Frank decided we needed to show off this new capability to the President, George HW Bush.

I hesitated before speaking up but had to.

‘I don’t think I can wear this to the White House,’ I said. ‘While it is lifelike and animates well, I can’t walk or talk like a black man. The Secret Service will take one look at me, ask me a question, and it will all be over.’

Anderson and Judge Webster conceded my point. We would present a female mask to the President, we decided.

Promptly dismissed from their meeting, I returned to my office and the disguise labs with a directive to prepare another mask. This wouldn’t be just any mask, however. It would need to be the best mask we ever made.

Our first order of business was choosing a face. In the creation of every mask, the sculptor played a critical role. We specified gender, ethnicity, age range, sometimes even a specific identity, but ultimately the sculptor’s hands shaped the final product.

At this time one of our best sculptors, a young Latina woman named Becky, was preparing to relocate to California.

As my farewell gift and a bit of an inside joke, she decided to give me her face. She knew that her facial dimensions would easily fit over mine, and it was a perfect solution. Younger! Prettier! No woman in her right mind would turn that down.

We were officially racing against the clock, and a lot was hinging on my meeting with the President. To put this new mask into production and into the field officers’ hands, we needed additional funding. Getting support from the White House was critical, and the meeting date was fast approaching.

Five days later I stood in our lab in Langley putting the finishing touches on ‘Becky’.

The mask was a masterpiece.

Our meeting with the President was a go!

Two days after that, I waltzed into the White House, drafting through security behind Judge Webster. We got stuck, however, waiting in the President’s outer office. His previous meeting was going long.

I tried to disappear into the woodwork, overcome by the usual paranoia I felt when wearing a new mask publicly for the first time.

This was a pretty high-level launch of a mask we’d never tested in the field, and I nervously chewed on the end of a pencil while pretending to study my notes. The delay seemed to stretch on endlessly. I worried that even if the mask didn’t give me away, my nerves would.

Confidence is everything, I reminded myself, impatiently awaiting the big moment.

When we were finally called to enter the Oval Office, we walked inside, where chairs were arranged in a horseshoe in front of the President’s desk.

Knowing that I would be the first one to speak, Judge Webster directed me to sit in the chair on the far right. As soon as we sat down, we went straight to business.

Webster introduced me by my name and explained I was here to show the President some of the agency’s new disguise capabilities. I pulled out the folder I’d brought, which contained photos of the President himself in disguise, from when he was director of the CIA.

After explaining that our disguise capabilities had improved immensely since his time at the agency, I began enumerating all the ways we could use them to evade the KGB.

We could convincingly disguise an officer, even create a clone of an officer – a twin! We could change an officer’s ethnicity or gender or ‘borrow’ another person’s identity if necessary.

This technology would change the way we were able to work against KGB harassment on the streets of Moscow.

As I was speaking, I noticed that the President was looking at the area by my feet, probably searching for a bag that contained our new disguises. When I told him I was wearing it, I raised a hand to begin removing it.

Before I had touched my mask, he popped up from his chair. ‘Hold on. Just a minute, don’t take it off yet,’ he said, as he walked around me, peering at my face and neck.

At this point, he knew I was wearing something fake. A false nose? A prosthesis?

He tilted his head, no doubt looking for the seams of whatever I was wearing. When he seemed satisfied, I lifted my hand again and peeled off the mask.

Suddenly charismatic and intensely curious, his eyes were almost sparkling as he asked questions.

While the President graced me with his attention, Dan Quayle tiptoed into the meeting, clearly not amused that he’d missed the moment of my big reveal.

But as my exchange with the President came to a close, it seemed clear we would get the support of the men in this room to roll out our new mask.

Once I’d returned to the outer office, I was approached by the White House photographer who had been in the meeting taking pictures.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘what did you do in there?’

‘I thought you were taking pictures of it,’ I replied.

‘Well, I did, but what was that?’

‘I can’t talk about it,’ I said after a brief pause. ‘It’s classified.’

I never sought out copies of those pictures, and I didn’t receive them until ten years later.

When I did, the package included a picture of me wearing the mask and one of me talking while holding it in front of me… except the mask is airbrushed out of the second photo.

That’s the one I have hanging in my office.

It looks like I’m lecturing the President, with my hand in the air, and when friends look at it and ask what I’m saying to him, I always reply the same way: ‘I can’t talk about it – It’s classified.’

READ 5 COMMENTS
  • Barb N says:

    Makes me wonder how many times we’ve not be actually seeing the ‘real’ Biden. Remember the movie, ‘Dave’?

    • Sharon says:

      As reading this article I was wondering the same thing. How many fake Bidens are there?
      And do we really know who is running our government. This is really scary

  • Tacitus Kilgore says:

    I would bet the masking technology is way better now. Can we trust who we are seeing in DC to be the real thing or a fake?

  • Welcome to Bizarro World ! says:

    What a cool story.

    Is it LIVE, or is it MEMOREX?

  • Janet says:

    That’s what they used to trick people into thinking they saw Epstein’s dead body being removed from his cell.

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